Ken Jennings


June 27, 2006

For those who haven’t checked out the site message boards yet, this thread has turned into an interesting discussion about why some better-known game show players (Brad Rutter and I are both name-checked therein) might try to avoid to the trivia-playing limelight at, say, a local NTN or trivia bar. Some posters politely wondered if this wasn’t a case of overly fragile ego–could Mr. High-And-Mighty TV Winner be afraid of being beaten by the feisty local talent at O’McGillicuddy’s Almost-Irish Neighborhood Pub? Wimp.

Speaking only for myself, obviously, I tried to explain that I’m very comfortable getting trivia questions wrong…unlike most of you, I imagine, I’ve gotten hundreds of them wrong in front of a national TV audience. And my ego somehow survived. But that was officially “on stage.” When I speak at campuses and corporate events, and audience members try to stump me with trivia questions, I’m, again, officially “on stage.” On the clock, so to speak. But when I’m hanging out in a bar or restaurant, “off the clock,” I just don’t enjoy the limelight that much. And if I got noticed playing trivia at somebody’s local bar, I think there’d be quite a bit of attention, which I probably wouldn’t enjoy. Whether I did well or not.

The British love trivia (one in ten Britons self-identified as a “quizaholic” in one recent survey) but my sense is their nomenclature is a little different from ours (and if I’m wrong, I hope a British reader puts down his steak-and-kidney pie, pops in his monocle, and writes in to inform me). The word “trivia” has been in use in the UK ever since the Trivial Pursuit fad of the mid-80s, but most hardcore players refer to their pastime as “quizzing.” I’m not entirely crazy about the word “quiz,” since it makes trivia sound about as fun to me as seventh-grade algebra, but I like the idea that there might be two separate words: one for the concept of trivia (the enjoyment of odd facts, and questions about them) and another for quizzing (a specific, public, competitive game built largely on trivia). The difference between “trivia” and “quizzing” is sort of like the difference between “stamps” and “philately,” or “caves” and “spelunking.”

This makes sense to me–and it helps explain my odd pathology. I’ve always like learning weird trivia. After spending a year researching my book Brainiac, I’m even something of an unwilling expert on the subject. But the competitive side of it, the “quizzing”? Maybe it’s what I’m best known for, but it’s not something I have much experience with. Most of my trivia hours have been spent behind closed doors, playing trivia board games with friends or even quiz bowl (these are both competitive, sure, but far from public, especially since I was totally anonymous at the time). I’ve never had a pub trivia team or a regular NTN watering hole.

That doesn’t mean I never will, though. Maybe Seattle has a thriving trivia scene where I can blend right in. I guess we’ll see.

Posted by Ken at 11:28 am